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Buckfast Abbey encourages active learning through its Education Centre

PUBLISHED: 15:23 13 July 2016 | UPDATED: 15:23 13 July 2016

BUCKFAST ABBEY Photo by Steven Haywood

BUCKFAST ABBEY Photo by Steven Haywood


Laura Dale reports on education at Buckfast Abbey in Devon

Education is important at Buckfast Abbey. Photo by Steven HaywoodEducation is important at Buckfast Abbey. Photo by Steven Haywood

Nestled in the foothills of Dartmoor National Park is Buckfast Abbey, a working Benedictine monastery that will celebrate its Millennium in 2018. Initially a one-year project set up by the monks as an education service for the Benedictine monks who reside at Buckfast Abbey, the Education Department continues to thrive more than 30 years on.

Headed up by Alison Gagg, who last year was nominated for a National Lifetime Achievement in Education Award, the renowned learning centre’s primary aim is that children learn by doing and in a manner that best fits their learning style. This belief is apparent in the enormous variety of workshops and resources that Alison and her team have developed over the years, all rooted in the desire to make learning an active experience for children and young people.

The focal point of Buckfast Abbey’s educational offering is the hands-on Education Centre. There are more than 40 separate activities on offer, covering a range of different learning styles, which all provide children with plenty of opportunities to explore varying concepts and ideas in their own way; from meeting the monks who live at Buckfast Abbey, to handling the materials used to rebuild the Abbey Church.

A popular activity is the Archaeology Zone that challenges children to explore the replica archaeological dig and match drawings to their findings. Children are encouraged to identify the items they discover in the dig and work out what they would be used for. Alison says: “It is a useful way to introduce children to the history of Buckfast Abbey, which was rebuilt on the original medieval foundations. At the time various medieval materials were recovered and now feature in the Education Centre for children to hold and study.”

A schoolboy learns about how the Abbey was built. Photo by Steven HaywoodA schoolboy learns about how the Abbey was built. Photo by Steven Haywood

The Abbey Church was mainly built by four monks over 30 years. School groups are able to discover the history behind the rebuilding of Buckfast Abbey and handle some of the materials used during the building work, including an original hoist used by the monks to lift the heavy stone. There were plenty of images taken at the time it was rebuilt, offering a real insight into the challenges the monks faced when building the Abbey Church. Some of the images are now displayed in the Education Centre, enabling children to compare their building activity to the monks’ experience.

School groups are also able to enjoy interactive tours exploring the Abbey Church and Gardens. Each workshop covers a particular subject within the school curriculum and provides an interesting alternative for schools. The workshops follow the ethos of ‘learning by doing’. Many focus on thought and reflection, such as the ‘Pause for Thought’, which actively encourages children to think and reflect on the symbols and artwork they see around the Abbey Church.

Alison says: “Buckfast Abbey places great emphasis on education, and through the support of the community the Education Department has continued to excel, creating a service that caters to all learning styles. It has been estimated that well over a quarter of a million school children have passed through the gates since the Education Department was first set up, and Buckfast Abbey continuously explores new opportunities to develop learning within the community.”

School workshops on offer include:

Windows of Wonder: An interactive tour of the Abbey Church for children to discover the different types of stained glass followed by a hands on session creating their own stained glass back at the Education Centre.

Pause for Thought: Activities to make pupils think and reflect – including Promise Flowers that can be opened to reveal sentiments that encourage children to look out for others.

Pestilence and Potions: Find out the horrible history of the Black Death, hear about potential cures and see a medieval doctor. Then risk getting the plague as you play a game which explores medieval travel and pilgrimage.

Ten quirky facts about Buckfast Abbey:

1. Buckfast Abbey was rebuilt by just four monks over a period of 30 years.

2. The tallest point of the Abbey Church is 50 metres.

3. The famous Blessed Sacrament window is 8.5m x 7.4m.

4. When Buckfast Abbey was being rebuilt it took the monks 1 hour to hoist a single block of stone into its designated location. One of the original hoists can now be used by children in the Education Centre.

5. The current abbot, Fr David Charlesworth, is the 38th person to hold the title Abbot of Buckfast since the monastery was originally founded in 1018.

6. In 2018 Buckfast Abbey will celebrate its Millennium.

7. There are more than 150 species of lavender in the gardens at Buckfast Abbey.

8. When King Henry VIII closed the Abbey in 1539 it was valued at £466.

9. 9,000 bees live in the Education Centre’s observation beehive.

10. 250,000 children have passed through the doors of the Education Centre since its creation.


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